Sara Naomi Lewkowicz/The New York Times

May 1, 2023

John Mulaney is Funny, Still

Print More

I can’t say I often find myself fully invested in celebrity gossip, and I certainly can’t say I enjoy it, but for whatever reason the tragicomic exploits of John Mulaney over the past three or so years have completely gripped my consciousness to an inappropriate extent. Perhaps it was a pandemic environment that minimized my exposure to the high school drama that had previously satiated my need for gossip, or perhaps it was the fact that I really liked John Mulaney, found him funny, and (owing to his role as a stand-up comedian) felt more personal affinity for him than I did any actor or director mired in similar controversy. For those who haven’t been following, Mulaney checked himself into rehab right in the middle of the pandemic, announced he was leaving his wife (relevant because of his comedic persona as a self-styled “wife guy”) and got into a relationship with Olivia Munn with whom he now has a son. Only the first detail is relevant to his latest special, “Baby J,” which was released on Netflix last week, but all of them feel kind of important for a comedian whose decade of earned goodwill had been completely recontextualized before he set foot on the Boston stage where the special was performed. 

“Baby J” is a special of the moment, more specifically John Mulaney’s moment. In it, he meticulously and non-sequentially details his trials of addiction, his experience with rehab and his more recent recovery process. It’s easy to read the special in the same lineage of the serious comedy specials that have begun to populate streaming over the past couple of years, including Jerrod Carmichael’s “Rothanial” (where the comedian discussing coming out as gay) and Bo Burnam’s “Inside” (involving a unique and powerful depiction of its auteur’s depression). That said, “Baby J” may just be the most effective and most interesting of these specials yet, containing some of Mulaney’s funniest moments without sacrificing too much of the topic’s brutal honesty. 

John Mulaney is, to a significant extent, just innately funny. That is to say that his comedic effectiveness relies less so on the specific jokes and punchlines (which more-than-occasionally don’t even land) and more on the process of storytelling. This process, so persona-based, risks collapsing in on itself when the stories reflect an individual who is so undeniably unlikeable. Forget the widespread assumption that he’s cheated on his wife, Mulaney provides the ammunition in just this special to indict him in the popular consciousness. Yet, despite such a visceral unpleasantness that diverges from the likable (if meek, or occasionally obnoxious) version of himself from previous specials, Mulaney still manages to keep the audience on his side. 

Addiction is terrifying, and Mulaney doesn’t shy away from speaking to his darkest moments, but he manages to extract so much comedy out of some of the most objectively painful moments that the special almost provokes an odd feeling. On the one hand, it’s hard not to break out into hysterical laughter: The material is wonderful. On the other, in the overwhelming comedy there feels lost a kernel of pathos, not gone but clearly disguised. In moments, Mulaney opts for the legitimate gut punch, but for the most part, he offers belly aches in a different manner. Compared to some of those aforementioned specials which feel almost like an on-stage therapy session, one almost gets the sense that Mulaney’s coping mechanism is altogether different, and that his comedic impulses override the open-bearing on a few occasions.  

The special takes some of its material from some previously released Mulaney content, including an interview with Seth Meyers released over a year ago now. Though the stories are the same, this is clearly a set that has been more thoroughly workshopped, and, seemingly, one that feels more viable as a night-in night-out performance. Regardless, the special still expresses an intense theme of desperation, giving an honest and occasionally brutal voice that will likely resonate with countless people, including broader audiences than just those who have dealt with addiction. 

In the end, Mulaney indirectly touches on all those things we might have heard about the now slightly infamous comedian. Speaking to the media cycle in terms of his own participation while suffering from addiction, Mulaney quotes to the audience an extended GQ interview he did the week before he went to rehab (and which he has no memory of whatsoever). Read with very little interjection or commentary from Mulaney, the interview (though funny) is equal parts painful and viscerally gross knowing the context, and reading it directly on the page. With little effort, Mulaney is able to thoroughly indict a news media that’s feasted on his private tribulations just as it farmed content while they were occurring. 

All told, “Baby J” is something completely different from Mulaney, but not too different all things considered. His private life may never really be private again, and his specials might increasingly involve the personal retelling of events we’ve all now experienced through the tabloids, but his storytelling skill remains as sharp as ever. The line between tragedy and comedy is blurred (erring more towards comedy than the average “tragicomic” special) and honesty turns out to be a great recipe not just for getting the audience on your side, but also for producing a pretty damn funny special.

Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]